We investigated 17 children with nephrotic syndrome (NS) of early onset (14 aged < 1 year) and rapid progression to end-stage renal disease for the presence of mutations in the Wilms' tumor suppressor gene WT1 on chromosome 11. In eight children (7 genotypic males) an association with Wilms' tumor and/or ambiguous genitalia (Denys-Drash syndrome) was observed. In these eight and two additional female patients with NS only constitutional missense mutations in the WT1 gene were detected; four children presented the so-called hot spot mutation in exon 9 (R394N) and six had different mutations in exons 8 and 9 (4 not previously described). Renal biopsy showed diffuse mesangial sclerosis in eight and focal segmental sclerosis in two cases. End-stage renal disease was reached either concomitantly or within four months after onset of NS in seven of ten patients. A unilateral Wilms' tumor was found before or concomitant with NS in four children (3 males, 1 female). From the seven genotypic males with WT1 mutations, five presented ambiguous genitalia and two a female phenotype. No mutation of the WT1 gene was found in seven other children with isolated congenital or infantile NS with or without DMS who appeared to have a slower progression than the first group. It is proposed that patients with early onset, rapidly progressive NS and diffuse mesangial or focal segmental sclerosis should be tested for WT1 mutations to identify those at risk for developing Wilms' tumor.